“Reader, be glad that you have nothing to do with this world. Its glamour is a delusion, its speed a snare, its music a scream of fear.”
Whilst recently sitting through the 1930s-set play I Am A Camera at the Southwark Playhouse, I had that frustrating sensation of being reminded of a film that I couldn’t quite recall, mainly in the carefree attitudes of its lead characters. A post-show drink or three finally got me there, the film was Bright Young Things and so I popped it onto my Lovefilm list as it had been quite a while since I last saw it and I was keen for a rewatch.
Based on Evelyn Waugh’s novel Vile Bodies which written in 1930, the film marked the screenwriting and directorial debut of a certain Stephen Fry. Positioned as a satire on this section of society, the plot circles around a fast-living decadent set of aristocrats and bohemians living the high life of cocaine and champagne-fuelled parties completely divorced from the realities and responsibilities of the real world around them. Would-be novelist Adam Fenwick-Symes and party girl fiancée Nina Blount are the central couple whose wedding is forever being put off as he keeps losing the money for it, but the Jack and Karen in their lives – the Hon Agatha Runcible and the fey Miles – are much more fun.
The film comes off rather well as a chaotically riotous affair that revels in its giddiness but which also has a vein of darkness threaded right through it as it spins, it is immediately clear that this is a downwards spiral that is dragging nearly everyone down. The life of the idle rich is staged with considerable vivacity by Fry, the relentless rush of gatherings and events and soirées is often breath-taking to watch and because Waugh’s intent was primarily satirical, there’s a great deal of fun in the superficiality on display. Michael Sheen’s Miles and Fenella Woolgar as Agatha are just fantastic in this respect, virtually on their own planet and taking Emily Mortimer’s Nina with them for the ride. Stephen Campbell Moore brings an amused pragmatism to Adam, who is not quite of this world but that just serves to keep Nina that elusive distance away from him even as they are both keen on getting married.
The main criticism one might have with the film though is connected to the above, the lack of real emotional depth to much of the whole story means that it is hard to really connect with it, especially as the darker turns of the second half take their toll. Woolgar in particular does her outright best to overcome this and pretty much succeeds with heart-breaking results, but Sheen isn’t given enough to work with and Mortimer ends up failing to convince at all in the final act, the fizz from the whole affair is lost a little. Fortunately, the supporting cast more than make up for it with some outstanding work being done in even the tiniest parts to make it a genuine visual and thespian treat. Lisa Dillon’s fresh-faced ingénue, Simon Callow’s awkwardly heavily-accented King of Anatolia, James McAvoy’s tragic gossip columnist, Bill Paterson’s dour Prime Minister, Harriet Walter’s deliciously vivacious socialite, the list just goes on. There’s a great cameo by Stockard Channing too as the leader of a religious troupe that has to be seen to be believed.
So well worth a rewatch, even if it lacks something of the depth that one might desire. For that though, you can go and see Rebecca Humphries and Harry Melling doing some great work in marrying the excesses of the era with a greater maturity at the Southwark Playhouse.